What is leadership? What are the qualities and characteristics of a great leader? Can anyone be a good leader? Let’s find out in this blog post!
Like management or talent development, leadership is one of those concepts that we have an inherent knack for recognizing but have a tough time defining well.
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Part of this is because great leaders don't all lead the same way or have the same experience. Some drive their teams really hard, and others emphasize work-life balance. Some are much more hands-on, while others delegate profusely.
Great leaders can be engineers or salespeople, anyone from business school alumnis to senior managers.
But none of those leaders just started managing people and teams out of intuition. It's an iterative process where you try something, make mistakes, and then adjust your style. As Vince Lombardi said, great leaders aren't born — they're made.
So, from all of the great leaders and managers that have paved the way, what can we learn about what makes a great leader from their mistakes and successes? And what does leadership really mean in today's world?
What Is Leadership?
Leadership isn't about a word in your title, a certain salary band, or any one specific characteristic like charisma or extroversion.
There are a lot of great definitions of leadership out there, especially by those who embody it.
In the Entrepreneur's article What Really Makes a Good Leader?, the author, Travis Bradberry, shares a quote by Peter Drucker: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers" as well as one by Bill Gates :"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others".
And he also gives his own: "Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good."
Another interesting quote on what being a leader means is one from Dwight Eisenhower. He said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he/she wants to do it." That sentence encapsulates all the elements of what leadership is.
Leadership is an art — which means there's no right way to do it. Leadership is an attitude, an intuition built over time.
And because there are multiple ways of getting to one outcome, you can be creative about it.
Leadership involves "someone else," even if they don't have to be direct reports or people who have a financial or social obligation to do what you tell them to do.
There's always a purpose, something that needs to get done. There's a goal at the end, and you and someone else are working together to achieve it.
And finally, to what John Maxwell said, "leadership is influence." That's the last piece of the puzzle in Eisenhower's quote.
We've known for a long time that internal motivation is the strongest driver of behavior.
Getting people to do things (and having them go above and beyond) doesn't come from authority or power. It comes the ability to socially influence them — to show them why something is important or meaningful and light a fire within them to contribute to that.
What Makes a Great Leader?
Even though there are many styles of leadership, you can judge if one certain approach works or not by one simple metric: is that leader getting the outcome he or she wants?
Specifically, it's about the purpose and the people: is the goal set out by them being achieved, and are the people they're leading happy as they work towards that goal?
To do these, a great leader has to be someone who can identify and strike the right balance between what are usually two opposing ideas.
Here are what those balances look like:
1. Communicating top-down, but also bottom-up
Leaders have to be great communicators. They have to talk to the people they're leading regularly and have a consistent message that resonates. This is what creates alignment and trust between people.
Empathy is also important when it comes to leadership. As Kate Pritchard, a consultant specialized in leadership management and employee engagement, told us, "To improve engagement, leaders need to demonstrate that they care about their employees, to listen to them, involve them, and respond to their views".
The feeling of collaboration is essential. Everyone wants to feel like they're contributing something, that they're not just a cog in the wheel or a robot taking orders.
Leaders create the space for that kind of contribution and empower the people they lead to accomplish that.
They have the ability to make those people around them feel bigger and bolder. It's about the people they lead, not about themselves.
MIT Sloan's blog writes, "It is about empowering employees to feel and think like owners so that they remain motivated to create new opportunities. It is also about establishing a kind of radical transparency in which voices across the hierarchy can be heard. But all of this requires, in turn, the cultivation of an open and trusting environment".
Kim Kurlanchik Russen, a partner at TAO Group, says the same thing as Kate Pritchard in different words. In an Entrepreneur article about the qualities of great leaders, she says, "communication is a balancing act. You might have a specific want or need, but it’s super-important to treat work as a collaboration. We always want people to tell us their thoughts and ideas — that’s why we have all these very talented people working with us."
2. Having strong convictions, but continuing to learn
Balancing communicating well with taking in feedback goes hand in hand with having strong ideals while being willing to put those head-to-head with new data points you're taking in.
According to Roselinde Torres, "Great leaders are not head-down. They see around corners, shaping their future, not just reacting to it."
There's a great Quartz article that talks about what makes a great leader, and they describe them with a few different terms: intellectually humble, opinionated adaptors, and flexible visionaries.
Here's an example of how they've visualized opinionated adaptors so that it's easy to see the balance a leader is trying to strike:
As Tomasz Tunguz, a prolific blogger and partner at the venture capital firm Redpoint, writes, "the core of leadership starts with listening and then being able to balance the external points of view with a strong sense of self (values, direction, belief)."
3. Risk-taking, but not reckless
Because leaders have conviction around some idea or some insight into how the world works, they're willing to make bets on that.
In a TED talk by Rosalinde Torres, a leadership expert from the management consulting firm BCG, she talks about leadership in the 21st century as being defined by three questions, distilled from a study of 4,000 companies and her 25 years of experience.
And her third question is about being courageous and taking risks. Here's a quote from her TED@BCG talk: "Great leaders dare to be different. They don't just talk about risk-taking; they actually do it. And one of the leaders shared with me the fact that the most impactful development comes when you are able to build the emotional stamina to withstand people telling you that your new idea is naïve or reckless or just plain stupid."
Leadership Is an Art
As much as we all might wish there was, there isn't a playbook on being an incredible leader. That's why we see successful leaders with so many different styles. There are multiple ways to go about influencing others and sharing a vision, and there's no one right way.
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